There is nothing wrong with "Good King Wenceslaus," "Deck the Halls" and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" once in a while; the problem is that we hear them hundreds of times in a very short while each year. By the time the presents are all unwrapped, we are likely to bid these seasonal items farewell with a little sigh of relief.
In spite of this year's usual Yuletide overkill, a large and enthusiastic audience ventured into the Kennedy Center Saturday night for yet another Christmas concert -- hardy souls, or perhaps people who knew that this would not be "yet another Christmas concert." What they heard was a refreshing change of pace in seasonal music, presented by Washington's two major musical consorts: the Folger Consort, which specializes in music of the middle ages and Renaissance, and the 20th Century Consort, which plays music of our own time. Both groups are members of Millennium, a consortium of five Washington musical organizations whose members are currently producing a series of 10 television programs surveying roughly 1,000 years of music history.
Sometimes it is hard to avoid the feeling that Christmas was invented by Charles Dickens in Victorian England and became petrified shortly thereafter. This program shattered that illusion, though it might have left people wondering how Chistmas was celebrated musically between 1620 and 1929. It opened and closed with two Italian cantatas (both titled "Lauda," or "Praise") composed six centuries apart but with considerable affinities of form and spirit. In between were vocal and instrumental works from medieval and Renaissance France, Spain and Germany, as well as George Crumb's delightful "Little Suite for Christmas," a piano work from contemporary America. The program had its ups and downs, but the ups predominated and were memorable. It was a distinguished addition to the Kennedy Center's annual Christmas festivities and should become an annual event.
The Folger Consort presented the first half, with distinguished assistance from the Robert Shafer Singers and soprano Carmen Pelton, who also performed in Respighi's "Lauda per la Nativita del Signore" with the 20th Century Consort in the second half. Only one item on the program was likely to be familiar to many members of the audience -- the Spanish villanciuco "Riu, riu, chiu," which was put into the early music Top 40 some years ago by the New York Pro Musica -- and this was performed in an unusual and charming instrumental version for plucked strings. Other highlights included a splendid series of variations on "In dulci jubilo," first by Michael Praetorius and then by Samuel Scheidt, Leonin's elaborations of a plainsong melody in "Viderunt omnes," and two settings of "O magnum mysterium" by Cristobal Morales and Tomas Luis de Victoria, Spanish Renaissance masters who rival and sometimes surpass Palestrina.
After intermission, pianist Lambert Orkis played the Crumb suite as though he owned it. In fact, he does, since it was written as a Christmas present for him a few years ago. It is a vividly descriptive work, inspired by a series of Nativity frescoes by Giotto, that uses the techniques of avant-garde piano (plucked strings, for example) in a way that communicates simply and directly with a nonspecialized audience. It is colorful music but also imbued with the sense of awe that the season demands.
Respighi's "Lauda," though well-performed, would have been more effective if it were shorter. But it is good music for the season, skilled in its use of archaic styles and in its use of wind instruments. It is interesting primarily as a novelty, but that is one thing we need in Christmas music.